Well, Lyon Biennale was the last one I’ll be going to for a while, and to be honest, I can’t say I mind. I’m coming to the end of my travels in Europe/UK, and I’ve seen so much art that I think my brain is exhausted – time to sit back, take stock, process it and make some work of my own.
And perhaps I’ve been to too many biennales, exhibitions, art festivals and museums in the last 4 weeks, but the pervading feeling for me about the Lyon Biennial is frustration. To be fair, it’s not all the Biennale’s fault – I had a really frustrating time in general in Lyon – it was my first port of call for France, for French culture, French language, so I was having a major culture shock, and it rained for 3 days straight.
day 1: fondation bullukian and the musee d’art contemporain
I started off my lyon biennale experience getting the good deal of a 2-day pass for €29, which included entry into all the places (which were about 5-10 each anyway), plus transport for all those places. good deal. my first stop was the fondation bullukian, which technically had only 2 works in it, but one work was the art video rental library containing over 100 video works. In Australia, phat space started something like this a few years ago, so it wasn’t a completely new concept to me, per se, but it was done with way more rigour, funding and organisation than phat space ever did (nothing against Danielle and Jen at all). As I was going through the collection alphabetically, I came across, yes, you guessed it, Magical World by Joanna Billing – the third time in as many weeks. I got so excited and was telling the attendant about it, so she put it on the big screen (that was playing works from the library), so I got to hear it again! yay!
after that great experience, I wandered around rain-soaked lyon looking for replacement moleskine (wishing I’d them in italy when I’d seen them) and then headed out to the musee d’art contemporain to see the works there.
I made my way slowly up the three floors of the gallery and as I went up each floor, my level of frustration rose. the lower floor was a collection of artworks that had originally featured in a publication called zoo and was a really wide range of works, materials and feeling, all under the essence of only their ‘channel’ being the common idea. some of the work was pretty lame and I felt that a lot of it was crammed in, or misplaced (ie, you made narrative assumptions between work when there was none). the best work was actually three little architectural models for foodstuffs by Sammy Engramer– a pavilion for a kilo of noodles, looking like a Bauhaus block, a house for salami and something else – they were sharp and witty, why can’t the storage of our food reflect the way we shelter ourselves.
there was also quite an interesting sculpture made of mirror and draped in zhuzy purple feather boa, which, if it is a representation of a stockmarket graph (in 3d form) and a reflection of the superficial nature of market-driven focus, then I like it. But I also have a habit of intellectualizing and overanalyzing, so I’m just not sure if that’s what the work was actually about that.
On the second floor I was really quite looking forward to seeing the Ranjani Shettar “a little bit more’ work that I raved about at the Sydney Biennale earlier this year. In the chapel at NAS (which just happens to be my old uni), it looked fantastic, mystical and transcendental. In the huge white room with the blonde floorboards at the MAC, it looked like a shaggy piece of netting hung up in a high-school indoor basketball arena. It was completely lost and the lighting was just lame – it was either too bright or not bright enough.
The final icing on the frustrating cake for me was the work by 3 artists which was preceded by a security guard checking ID, as the work was ‘unsuitable for children’. I went in there, steeling myself for a range of offensive works, and all I saw was a glass structure, 3 coloured neon lights and a set-up which seemed to be about the idea of reflection (which, by the way I’m sick of in work and think it’s just bloody laziness). I asked the attendant what the work was about and whether it was this work that had the ‘offensive material’ and she didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t ask it in French and so I left, feeling duped and like I’d just walked in on the biggest fucking artwank in the history of the universe. I asked the ID-checking guard at the beginning of the room why, and she just answered ‘comme-sa’… fuckers. I was bloody ropable by this stage and none of the other work in the museum really did anything to restore my faith in contemporary art. I felt like I was part of an industry or whatever, that was the biggest load of bullshit I’d ever scene – and I have a degree in the shit and can cope with stretching the boundaries of art theory wank!) – I couldn’t imagine what someone without all the prior knowledge felt. in fact the whole show seemed to be about having prior knowledge and conserving the idea of exclusivity.
What wasn’t clear to me instantly, which became slowly clearer as the day went on was the ‘rules’ of the game. The accessible information about the show was all in French, which is fine, seeing as it’s in France, but fuck-all in English, which was very frustrating. A lot of the information about the biennale in English referred to the game and the players, but didn’t really elaborate and it wasn’t until I read the English catalogue at the end that any of it made sense to me at all, which was really, really unfortunate, as the premise of the exhibition was interesting. Similar to Selekta at West Space in Melbourne, this biennale had 2 ‘rounds’ of selection – firstly, a bunch of curators, writers and directors were asked to choose an artist who was doing some interesting stuff and who had been around since the beginning of the decade. Then a bunch of artists were asked to create works that best described the decade and some of the key ideas. The whole concept of having multiple ‘curators’ interested me to no end. where the idea falls down is that the theme or the focus of those selections is on something actually reasonable facile and is not all that enlightening about that much. in terms of a decade, 7 years in (well, actually 6, with the works/artists having to be chosen well before this biennale) is quite a silly place to be making statements about a decade, either in looking backwards or forwards. And, in the whole grand scheme of history of humanity and the breadth of ideas, what is the purpose of looking at a decade anyway? It just reminded me a little of Herald-Sun type news-grabbing themes to me.
There were still some great works to be seen and some selections by some fantastic people, but as a whole concept, I’m not so convinced about the Lyon Biennale.
day 2: institut d’art contemporain and le sucriere
I decided to give the other venues the benefit of the doubt and not judge all the works by a select few. L’institut d’art contemporain is so different from the le musee d’art contemporain that it’s quite astounding and I wonder if this is what classifies an ‘institute’ [my only experience with such things being the Australian institute of sport and of course the Ponds Institute.]
The work here was far more ‘mature’ and considered and site-specific. The work was able to actually say some important things about human nature, habit, power and creation. The highlights for me were the works by Dave Hullfish Bailey and especially his 3D ‘map’ of history, Pull Me From the Wreckage. It was a tableau of occurrences, with pieces of wood being the linear links between ‘events’ and those being signposted with small wooden stakes and handmade signs. It was at once powerful and adorable.
Simon Starling’s Work In Progress:Particle Projection was a beautiful piece about process and transformation. The image projection, from 16mm film (a beautiful format), was of a particle of Silver Gelation, a sample taken from a film still which was documenting the archiving of a film work (if I remember rightly). The rotating image itself was so peaceful and the documentary work gave it a context.
The other great work at the Institute (although I did get a bit depressed by it, because she was a year older than me and in an international Bienniale), was the work by Mai-Thu Perret, a swiss artist who created a ‘blue room’ from chroma key and project images from London streets and then a sound narrative which took you through the process of looking at a work and reflected to you the questions, fears and assupmtions you might have when experiencing that particular work. It was a little unnerving at times, but in a good way.
Later in the evening, after a well-earned disco nap, I went out to la sucriere, the artspace on the docs, which was reminiscent of Wharf 4/5 in Sydney. This venue was easily the best of the lot and I got a lot of out loads of the works. The ubiquitous Charles Avery and his island mythology was there, which was nice to revisit and Urs Fischer’s sculptures, well chosen by Massimilano Gioni (a favourite curator of mine) were great – a broom held upright by a balloon and an office chair tied with a floating cannon, all defying gravity.
The absolute hightlight for this venue and in fact the whole biennale for me was Cao Fei’s Nu River project. Apparrently part of a wider project to trek to the Yunnan province of China and to document the process, this video installation was all that resulted after untold ‘catastrophes’. This video, however, was hilarious [although, strangely, I was the only one laughing because I think the French either didn’t quite get the nuances of the English subtitles, or they just didn’t find it funny]. The work was about journey and travel, with little reminders about Kerouac’s On The Road, Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a little bit of Stand By Me and of course an unavoidable relationship to Mao’s Long March. There was the right amount of solemnity and poignant illustration of Chinese provincial life/poverty, sprinkled liberally with warped humour and stupidity. There is a scene where they replicate old school Chinese film (and a whole lot of monkey magic), with the ‘special effects’ of panning across two people and when the camera pans back, one person has ‘disappeared’ (ie, ducked out of view) and then on the pan back, ‘reappears’ (ie, stood up). That explanation doesn’t sound hilarious at all, but believe me, it was great! I also realised, as an Australian, how much of an influence the Asian warped sense of humour and cultural influence I have and how much I had been missing it here.
I’m in Paris now, having run out of money, and checking out what I can on the cheap/free, and on the way home. I’ll probably spend a bit of time taking stock, so there may be a few sentimental posts on here in the coming weeks, sorry about that J
UPDATE: i’ve got a really shit net-connection, so the bad pics will have to come later 🙂